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Europa League: Braga v Rangers – Ibrox side walking tightrope in season-defining spell

Giovanni van Bronckhorst
Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s Rangers face Braga over two legs for a Europa League semi-final berth
Europa League quarter-final first leg: Braga v Rangers
Venue: Braga Municipal Stadium, Portugal Date: Thursday, 7 April Kick-off: 20:00 BST
Coverage: Listen to commentary on BBC Radio Scotland & online; follow live text on the BBC Sport website and app.

Soaring high into the Portuguese sky, the Monte Castro is an imposing sight for those gazing upwards in the city of Braga.

Erupting from its north face is the unmistakable image of the city’s municipal stadium, one of European football’s most iconic grounds. At the other end is a view of the city below, while two stands adjacent to the quarry wall face each other, connected together at the roof by dozens of steel strings.

Traversing one of those beams would be akin to the path Giovanni van Bronckhorst and his Rangers team are attempting to navigate as the season reaches a gripping but crucial conclusion.

  • Rangers can cope without Morelos – Van Bronckhorst
  • How Carvalhal’s Braga fairytale came true

The scenic backdrop in northern Portugal will pale in significance to the dramatic one brought from Glasgow to this Europa League quarter-final first leg.

Defeat by Celtic in Sunday’s derby has left the Ibrox side needing favours to retain their league title, while another Old Firm meeting in the last four of the Scottish Cup looms next Sunday.

With each passing game, the margin for error narrows further.

Domestic uncertainty and hopes of European history

Domestically, Rangers have not hit the stride of the team which notched up their 55th title last term. The ruthlessness which characterised their procession to the Premiership crown has come in fits and spurts, interrupted along the way with trips and stumbles. A four-game winning streak is the best they have mustered.

Losing a two-goal lead at home to Motherwell last month is just one example, while the combustion at Hampden against Hibernian in the Scottish League Cup semi-finals was a warning shot for the incoming Van Bronckhorst.

Domestically, a double is still more than plausible, but one poor result in either competition would be costly.

Yet in Europe, Rangers are a peculiar and at times unstoppable beast.

So often an enthralling outfit marauding their way across the continent under Steven Gerrard, a crack at the Champions League qualifiers ended with the quietest of whimpers against Malmo back in August.

But the Europa League has again proven to be a haven for the Ibrox side, particularly under Van Bronckhorst.

Sparta Prague beaten twice, undefeated against Brondby, a draw in Lyon, a jaw-dropping affair in Dortmund which paved the way to an iconic 6-4 aggregate win and then a 4-2 victory over two legs against Red Star Belgrade have brought them to the Portuguese mountains as their European ascent continues.

Forty-one shots have been conceded while 111 have been fired off in the opposite direction. There have been 318 attacks, 33 saves from the evergreen Allan McGregor with just 11 goals conceded to the 17 scored.

For the 12,000-plus Rangers fans making their way here, there won’t be a single one backing a goalless draw.

Doing it the hard way

Rangers have previous here, too. Only two years ago, Braga were seen off over two legs as Gerrard’s team reached the last 16.

But it will be a different challenge for the Glasgow side this time around. Under Carlos Carvalhal, the average age of the Braga team has plummeted as their stock has risen. Thirteen academy kids have received a debut under the former Swansea boss, including 15-year-old Roger Fernandes last season.

Their form has been formidable. A Portuguese Cup was earned in his first year in charge, while this season both FC Sheriff and Monaco have not halted his young bucks. Benfica were also undone on Friday, for good measure.

Carvalhal claims the game is “50/50”. He will be confident another scalp can be taken.

Rangers ignited by European stage

But Rangers can be buoyed by what they have achieved up to this point.

There is something about European football which ignites the best in their ranks. McGregor, now 40, made 11 saves against Belgrade at Ibrox last month in his 101st European appearance, the oldest goalkeeper to do so in this competition.

Ryan Kent, who scored the last time the teams met here, has electrified this Rangers attack. In Dortmund he was unbeatable, and he is the man Van Bronckhorst will be looking to the most.

Speaking on Wednesday, the Dutchman said his side would be able to get the job done without their talismanic striker Alfredo Morelos.

His absence cannot be underestimated. He is the club’s top European goalscorer, and in his nine games in the tournament this season has had 26 attempts, scored four and earned two assists.

Even when not scoring, the Colombian has the ability to corral the team around him and torment the opposition in equal measure.

His absence is damaging, yes, but there is enough to offer not just hope but confidence to the travelling thousands.

The key to Rangers’ European success has been the ensemble performance from the group. The energy they bring has been insatiable, and there is something which is roused on these Thursday nights.

This season has already been a step beyond for this Rangers team compared to recent campaigns, with the mouth-watering opportunity to go even further.

In a momentous series of games, finding their feet in Portugal could help define what is yet to come.

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